The dream of boundless empathy

People flee across oceans and nations in the hope of a better life. But can we take in their suffering? Researchers explain why it may not be self-evident to us to empathise with others.

Refugees arrive on the shores of a greek island. Photo: Getty images

Being able to empathise with others is a fundamental human ability. When we share in the suffering of others we also have a wish for the suffering to end. It is therefore not strange that catastrophes such as the ongoing migrant crisis give rise to great action and a willingness to help.

However, some researchers have likened empathy with a “delicate flower” that is easily destroyed by other psychological forces. In the worst case scenario, people in distress are not met by a helping hand but by direct hostility, such as when refugee accommodation is set on fire. For the most part, xenophobic rhetoric does not primarily not reach out to empathy but to another human instinct: protecting one's own group.

Andreas Olsson, researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, conducts research into how people learn from each other in social situations – an area of research in which both empathic ability and group psychology have proven to be key features. Both exist within all of us and the combination has been important for the creation of a safe social environment.

Andreas Olsson. Photo: Private

“Identifying with a group comes very naturally to us. In evolutionary terms it has been crucial to be part of a group in order to collaborate and defend oneself against external threats. But this tendency is also currently a big problem in society”, he says.

Research shows that we in many ways discriminate in favour of members belonging to what researchers call “the in-group”, the group that an individual perceives as their own. The outsiders, “the out-group”, are people we often feel less empathy for, and we more easily associate them with unpleasant experiences. The psychological positioning happens rapidly and subconsciously and is frequently affected by factors such as ethnicity or social class. But even arbitrary group divisions, such as when we are randomly placed in different groups at school or at work, can affect our empathy.

In a classic experiment the empathy researcher Tania Singer, professor at the Max Planck Society, let football supporters witness other fans being subjected to painful electric shocks. They felt the strongest feelings of empathy when the pain was inflicted on someone supporting the same team as them. When the electric shocks were aimed at fans of rivalling teams, the levels of empathy decreased. At the same time, the researchers noted decreased activity in the anterior insula, a part of the brain connected to empathy. It was even the case that the brain reward system became very active – they enjoyed seeing others in pain!

Empathy transforming into pure schadenfreude can also be seen in game-based experiments where cheaters are given electric shocks as punishment. It sounds terrible. But it seems it is predominantly one half of the human population who have cause to feel ashamed on this account; schadenfreude is a phenomenon more commonly observed in men.

Andreas Olsson says that group divisions are hard to shift once they have been established. It makes it harder than you might think, to succeed with measures to reach increased understanding between groups. As an example he mentions integration projects where children got to visit marginalised environments.

“It is not enough to let groups meet; a few days later they have as little understanding of each other as they did before meeting. It is necessary to actively try to see things from other people's perspective. Another factor which has proven to be significant is working towards common goals, such as playing in the same football team”, says Andreas Olsson.

Not to mention the situation in war, where empathy for other groups seems to have been lost entirely.

“In war, the enemy becomes an extreme out-group who are completely dehumanised. Another explanation is that people who experience a great deal of suffering become desensitised and lose the ability to take in other people's feelings”, he says.

Andreas Olsson is actually not that keen on the word empathy as it involves several abilities that are not really represented in the term. A primitive part is copying the feelings of others, like when a baby hears another baby crying and becomes upset as well – which happens even though they have not yet developed a concept of anyone other than themselves. Emotions are among the most contagious things in existence, but it is simply not enough that two people have the same emotions at the same time. We only become empathetic when we have an understanding for the other person's perspective and when the feeling is separated from the self so that we share someone else's feelings.

Empathy can also be separated from its more sophisticated cousin sympathy, which can be described as feeling for someone without sharing that person's feelings. Studies using brain imaging reveal that sympathetic persons do not find themselves in a similar condition to the person suffering; instead, other areas of the brain are activated – areas connected to positive emotions. It is then about something entirely different than schadenfreude, sympathetic persons usually describe their feelings for the other person as warmth and concern.

Like other qualities, the empathetic ability varies in the population. Certain research suggest that women are generally more empathetic than men. The difference is greatest early in life, in children, and it decreases once we grow older. But variations within the groups are wide; many men are more sensitive than the average woman.

“At one extreme, there are people with high empathetic sensitivity who are very negatively affected by the suffering of others. At the other there are, for example, people with psychopathic character traits who find it hard to be affected by other people's feelings”, says Andreas Olsson.

But empathy is not just about caring about others. Other people's experiences are also a useful compass for the individual.

“There is a lot of research into what happens when we learn from our own experiences. We also very much learn from other people and it is then significant how we perceive the other person's perspective. But how that happens and what role sympathy plays is something we do not know much about, which is quite strange really”, says Andreas Olsson.

Animals also have a moral compass

  • Many mammals show signs of empathy. Here are three examples that have caught the researchers' interest:
  • Mice carefully avoid stepping on a button that gives another mouse an electric shock. Altruism in the albino rat, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 1962
  • Chimpanzees often try to comfort other chimpanzees that have been subjected to an attack. Consolation as possible expression of sympathetic concern among chimpanzees PNAS July 2010
  • Dogs who see a crying human do not wag their tail as usual but instead get closer to them by sniffing, licking and pressing their nose against the person who feels sad. Empathetic-like responding by domestic dogs (canis familiaris) to distress in humans, Animal Cognition, May 2012

With his research he is trying to answer a fundamental question – how do we learn what to be afraid of? He is especially interested in what we do when we learn from the experiences of others, i.e. something that can involve more or less empathy.

In his experiments, he often has a research subject watch a series of images such as faces or geometrical forms. In connection with certain images, an unpleasant electric shock is given, so that the person learns after a while which stimuli are “dangerous” and reacts to these with fear. Sometimes the events were witnessed by a second research subject who then learned the same thing indirectly through the reactions of the other person.

“A reoccurring pattern is that the perceived group affiliation of the participants affect the results. For example, the observer does not learn as easily if the person receiving the electric shocks has another skin colour”, says Andreas Olsson.

In a new study, Andreas Olsson divided observers from an electric shock experiment into different groups. Some of them were instructed to try to understand the other person's experience of the painful electric shocks. Other people were told that the person was just pretending to be tortured by the shocks, which were actually barely noticeable. A third group received no instructions at all. A further division was made based on the participants' general empathetic ability. It turned out that the ability to learn from the other person's experiences was directly connected to the level of empathy – those who were the most empathetic during the experiment developed the strongest fear of the images that were “dangerous”.

“This indicates that we do more than just observe regularities when we learn from others; the more we step into the perspective of others, the stronger the impression from their experiences”, he says.

But how is it even possible to share the experiences of someone else? That is a question that Predrag Petrovic, researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, has attempted to answer with his research. He explains that when we see another person experiencing something, such as pain, it is partly the same parts of the brain that get activated as when we are subjected to the same thing ourselves. It suggests that empathetic pain literally is a form of pain. But this could be a misconjecture.

Predrag Petrovic. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

“The fact that empathetic pain and individual pain involve the same areas of the brain does not necessarily mean that they are one and the same. It could be entirely different functions that happen to exist in the same place in the brain”, says Predrag Petrovic.

In order to settle the question, Predrag Petrovic and his co-workers have designed an ingenious experiment. More than a hundred research subjects were placed in functional MRI scanners and received a painful treatment. At the same time, they observed another person in the room who was being subjected to pain and were asked to try and describe the other person's pain.

After having been given a placebo, i.e. a chemically ineffective pill that was presented as a painkiller, their own pain decreased as expected. But so did the research subject's empathy for the other person in the room. At the same time there was visibly decreased activity in the areas of the brain connected to empathetic pain.

Predrag Petrovic has previously demonstrated that pain relief through placebo has a biological basis in that the body's own morphine system, the opioid receptors, are activated. In order to see whether the empathic pain is dependent on the same mechanism, half of the research subjects were given a substance that blocked the opioid receptors. It then became evident that empathy was normalised – when the pain relief subsided, the other person's pain was also perceived as more unpleasant again.

According to Predrag Petrovic, the results tell us that empathy can be understood as a simulation of other people's experiences, where the same networks in the brain are active, as if the experience was our own. Such an overlap between brains comes with some strange consequences.

“It could be the case that a common painkiller not only reduces our own pain but also has the side effect of decreasing empathy for the suffering of others. But this must be examined in more studies”, says Predrag Petrovic.

In his research, Andreas Olsson often studies people's reactions to images. A current image that caused an explosive emotional effect is that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old boy wearing a red jumper and trainers who was found washed up on a Turkish beach.

A few days after the publication of that photo SIFO, commissioned by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, conducted a survey on the Swedish people's opinion on immigration policy. The results showed that the number of Swedes who thought that rules and legislations should be amended in favour of receiving more refugees had increased from 17 to 25 per cent. The biggest change was that fewer people were unsure, i.e. more people had taken a stance. It is a statistically ensured difference compared to the days before the publication and an unusually quick turn in opinions.

“It shows the enormous forces we are dealing with”, according to Predrag Petrovic, who says that he was one of those deeply affected by the photo.

Empathy is an important moral compass but common sense can sometime point in the opposite direction. For example, research show that the larger the number of people who need help, the more indifferent we become. When researchers at Linköping University showed research subjects images of children in need, both the emotional response and the willingness to donate money were greatest when an individual child was shown. The generosity decreased as soon as there were two children and continued to decrease the larger the need for help became. The participants were also more willing to make a moral decision to save the life of an individual identifiable person than to try to save 40 anonymous people.

With this counterintuitive logic, the immense power of the individual image of Alan Kurdi becomes perfectly reasonable. But does this kind of empathy shock make people automatically reach out a helping hand? Not necessarily, according to Andreas Olsson.

“Many people identified strongly with that image. But this does not mean that there is an increase in the motivation to help as a matter of course. Many people may have felt a pure sense of discomfort, which is more likely to make people look away or turn off the TV in order to avoid feeling the pain of others”, he says.

Andreas Olsson does not think that his view on morals has changed through his research as he has learnt about people's empathy or lack thereof. On the contrary, he is careful to differentiate between scientific facts and moral or political views. However, he believes that we all have a lot to learn from the research.

“It is very important for politicians and others to learn from the research. To understand, for example, that it is natural for people to divide into groups that are hard to change. But just because something is natural it does not mean that we must accept the negative consequences or use it as a model for society”, he says.

Test your prejudices

Do you see the people?

The ability to feel empathy for the suffering of others may weaken when we think in terms of groups.

Do you empathise with the people in the photo?

That does not necessarily mean that the desire to help increases, according to the researchers. We all carry thoughts and emotions that are outside of our conscious control. Within Project Implicit, researchers have developed tests that measure our subconscious attitudes on everything from ethnic groups to political questions and pets.

Try it yourself at

Book tip: Train your compassion

Buddhist monks who have actively worked on their compassion are on to something important. When most people react negatively to the suffering of others, the monks react more constructively, with warmth and compassion. What is their secret?

In the e-book Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz, both researchers at the Max Planck Society, present different ways to train your compassionate abilities. Through text, audio and films the Buddhist view on compassion is put forward, as well as secular and research-based training programmes that can be used within schools, psychotherapy or in palliative care.

The book can be downloaded for free via:

Text: Ola Danielsson, forst published in the magazine Medical Science, no 4, 2015.

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